Xenophobes with a cause

I am not a Nazi, but....” Many Germans begin this way before expressing hostility to the flood of refugees in their midst. Migrants have been involved in a few high-profile murders, rapes, robberies, street fights and in hooliganism. Dr Monika Kurth complains, “We have legitimate concerns regarding migrants, but if we talk about this, we are called racists.”

The simmering racial tensions erupted in Chemnitz, an eastern city of 2.5 lakh people. A young German man was stabbed to death in a street altercation between an Iraqi and a Syrian migrant. Emotions flared when incendiary lies spread on right-wing social media groups that the man was killed while saving a German woman from migrant attackers.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD)—the main opposition party in Parliament—and the Pegida, an ultranationalist, Islamophobic, anti-immigration movement, summoned street protests. From nurses to neo-Nazis, 8,000 people congregated, overwhelming the police. There were scary incidents of mobs hunting down dark-skinned foreigners. Chancellor Angela Merkel sternly condemned the “hate in our streets” as unacceptable. But, AfD leader Alexander Gauland said that when murders were committed, “it is normal for people to go berserk”.

Most demonstrators were ordinary townspeople, but local police say neo-Nazis and football hooligans from elsewhere, too, had arrived. They raised the banned Nazi salute, and shouted “Foreigners Out”, “You are not welcome here” and “Luegenpresse” (lying press). For Germans, this is not merely evocative of Donald Trump’s rants against fake news, but a throwback to the rise of Nazi Germany. Observed Spiegel Online, “Of course, history is not repeating itself, but that a far-right mob is on a rampage... is reminiscent of the situation during the Weimar Republic.”

The root of the current rage lies in the arrival of 16 lakh refugees in 2015. German municipalities are overwhelmed. The migrants are mostly young, single, jobless Muslim men who do not speak German and lack the moderating influence of a family.

The Chemnitz violence symbolises the failure to integrate ghettoised immigrants. It also symbolises the failing integration of East Germans. Three decades after the Berlin Wall fell, erstwhile East Germany inhabitants have been poorly integrated into the booming German economy. Communist East Germany was white and without foreigners. Migrants have now become lightning rods for hate and anger, as worried locals fear foreigners will steal their jobs and subvert their culture. Predictably, former East German areas are AfD strongholds.

“We will not allow the extreme right to infiltrate our society,” said Minister of Justice Katarina Barley. But, they have. Chemnitz revealed disturbing links between the ultranationalists and local authorities. The migrant identity of the murder suspects were leaked to Pegida. In Bavaria, two policemen were suspended for performing the Nazi salute.

Foreign Affairs Minister Heiko Maas told Bild that, to crush far-right extremism, “we have to get up from our sofas and open our mouths. The silent majority must get louder.” He struck a chord. Next day, 65,000 people attended the “#wirsindmehr” (#WeAreMore) anti-fascist concert.

Across Europe, anti-immigration populism surges. Early this week, the Sweden Democrats party which has neo-Nazi roots, significantly won nearly one-fifth of the votes in the national elections. If Merkel’s cherished European values of openness and liberalism are to be safeguarded, more Europeans must get off their sofas... and not just to attend rock concerts.

Pratap is an author and journalist.